The “ethics” of a design contest

Every day you learn something.

Today’s lesson? Apparently, professional designers feel that design contests are unethical–I’ve discovered this because of a couple separate emails I’ve received in the last few days concerning a contest we’ve just launched at work.

While I appreciate that a professional association needs to advocate on behalf of its members and protect their interests, I take real issue (philosophically) with the anointed/unclean distinction implicit in this sort of “guild” thinking… but that’s not the main issue here. Instead, it revolves around the concept of “speculative design”, something this contest is accused of being.

I’ve not yet asked for permission to post either of the original emails, but in the interests of being fair, here’s about the strongest statement I can find against speculative design. (Also be sure to check out the AIGA link in the letter below).

Professional designers rightly feel threatened by the easy access to some of the tools of their trade (like Illustrator and Photoshop, or their free cousins Inkscape and Gimp) and the growing number of businesses willing to pit desperate underemployed designers against each other, taking advantage of their situation. I guess we’ve just become the most recent target of that frustration.

After receiving a nice “educational”  note from the Society of Graphic Designers of Canada, I responded with the following note. I’d love your feedback in the comments below;


Thank you for taking the time to write, although for a profession that prides itself on communication and the importance of relationships, sending what appears to be a boilerplate note is a perplexing choice. Starting a real dialogue would be much more likely to achieve your educational goals and protect your industry.

As far as ethical standards relating to our contest, we strongly support AIGA’s newer position on spec work and their ethical reasoning for supporting such a position—we’re not naïve to these considerations. Although we’ve called our contest a design contest, it is not meant to replace potential paid work or lead to paid work, it is not meant to engage professional designers and it is not, at its core, even a design contest. Clearly, you don’t understand our motivation or objectives if you truly believe this is a lose-lose situation.

This contest has been set up to build awareness for our volunteer-driven organization and encourage people to become involved in our affairs in a personal way. Having a few extra ideas, beyond what we would have generated in-house, is just an added benefit. It’s already met that objective, as you and other graphic designers in your discussion boards are now aware of our existence. That’s clearly a win for us.

We’ve also made clear that those who don’t win will likely get their intellectual property back; you can’t get much more ethical and up-front than that.  We also recognize our own risks and have (and will) make reasonable attempts to manage those risks appropriately.

Truth be told, as a non-profit organization and registered charity, we believe that different rules *do* apply to us. We’re not a company asking professional designers to undertake spec work in the hopes of winning a contract, there’s no promise for more in the future, and there is no reason that anyone should feel otherwise. This is not an instance of “we could pay for it but we won’t”. This isn’t even really identity work and doesn’t fit into our overall identity/design strategy, it’s more a part of our community-building/social media strategy.  Sometimes you need a professional designer, and sometimes you don’t.

We have worked with excellent design professionals in the past (both for paid work as well as pro bono work) and have been very pleased with the results. It does not cheapen your profession for us to run this contest, but it may leave people with a negative opinion of the GDC that you feel the need to comment negatively on a small charity’s community-building exercise when there are much bigger fish to fry.

I welcome and encourage you to post this reply to your community discussion board or anywhere else where we can be a part of a genuine conversation on this topic. We have a deep appreciation for the design process and although our resources are limited, we pay for that expertise when we need it.

Unfortunately, sending out “educational” boilerplate does nothing to further your cause, at least in our minds.


Chris Mathieson

Do you think the contest amounts to spec work? Do you think it’s unethical? Any thoughts on how we should handle these sorts of concerns in the future?